Chanel Spring 2020 Couture Collection | Vogue
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Virginie Viard’s Chanel haute couture presentation saw us in the romantically overgrown garden of a cloister, set somewhat miraculously in the chilly immensity of Paris’s Grand Palais. The setting suggested a key element in Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel’s legendary story. Chanel was 11 years old when her mother died, and as her wayward father—a traveling salesman with a supposed wandering eye—was often away, it was decided that she would be sent to the convent of Aubazine in the remote French region of Corrèze. Here, her unusual and impoverished situation meant that she was among the girls singled out to wear an austere black-and-white uniform, one that she would adapt through the years to dress the richest and most stylish women of her age.

In imaginative retellings of her autobiography, Chanel would refer to the convent’s strict and unforgiving nuns as “aunts.” These taskmasters nevertheless taught the young Chanel to sew and thus gave her the tools to forge a life as an independent woman for herself in later years. The aesthetic of the convent stayed with Chanel forever. Her distinguished future biographer Edmonde Charles-Roux saw in the designer’s “yearning for austerity” or in the moments when she “waxed nostalgic for all things white, simple, and clean, for linen piled high in cupboards, [and] whitewashed walls,” references to “a secret code.” In fact, Charles-Roux posited, “Every word meant only one word: Aubazine.”

Fully aware of the biographical significance of the convent in Chanel’s life, and to her aesthetic, Virginie Viard made a pilgrimage to Corrèze on a gloriously sunny day last September.

“Karl didn’t like those things,” Viard explained backstage at the collection as the models were lining up like so many well-behaved schoolgirls in their prim, Claudine-collared coats and blouses, and old-fashioned black patent schoolgirl shoes with built-in white ankle socks. “He always said, ‘Oh, it’s ugly, ugly!’ But I said to myself, I must do this.” The visit proved inspirational; “I loved it,” Viard recalls, “it was full of charm.” In fact, she was so moved by the cloister’s unkempt garden that she immediately decided to recreate it for the evocative decor of the haute couture set in the Grand Palais, creating an enclosure of dozens of antique linen sheets hung up as though freshly laundered by the girls and the nuns to dry in the breeze.

The influence of those convent girls and their childhood home threaded through Viard’s collection in subtle ways that showcased the incredible resources of the haute couture. Viard, for instance, developed a soft, pastel woven-and-sequined fabric to evoke the chapel’s stained-glass windows (with motifs that famously incorporated what appear to be linked circles forming C’s from which Chanel, one may speculate, drew her iconic logo). The pastel was the only deviation from the palette of black, gray, mauve, cream, and white. The convent’s unique stone floors, with their rough pebbles laid in a grid that resembled quilting, were evoked in trellises of embroidery tracing the shape of the Peter Pan collars. One particularly beautiful example, on a suit jacket of marled stone-colored tweed, turned out in the hand to have been worked with “sequins” cut from chiffon.

The whole collection embraced the sobriety, lightness, and wearer-friendly ease that Viard is quickly making her personal signature at the house. “I think it’s good to make clothes for women in a summer spirit,” she explained. “It is so pleasant to go barefoot and wear a long skirt and a big, cotton grandfather shirt, or lace pieces.” Viard captured that relaxed holiday spirit in wide-swinging skirts or simple, above-the-knee-length versions; in a suit jacket cut like a caban; and in unfitted shift dresses. The options reflect Viard’s understanding of the needs of Chanel customers around the world. The refinements of the haute couture, meanwhile, do not often reveal themselves at first glance: many of the skirts, for instance, were paired with exquisite overskirts in filmy tulle that added extra length, but garlanded the lower leg in exquisitely embroidered fragile dandelion clocks, or scattered meadow flowers, or butterflies made from feathers.

The roughness of the turn-of-the-century rustic clothing that Chanel would have been very familiar with was suggested in a flare-skirted suit cut from a wool that looked like woven string, and in the thick cotton-flowered laces used for dresses that seemed ready for a first communion, or in a scintillating mauve ball gown with a top cut like a workman’s apron. Gigi Hadid rocked a monastic black dress with pale collar and cuffs that closely resembled Chanel’s school uniform—although worn unbuttoned in front to the upper thigh, in 2020, it had a thoroughly adult allure.